How to Avoid Relapse

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There is a great deal of confusion concerning the role of relapse in recovery. Discovering how to avoid alcohol relapse or drug relapse if simplified if you have an understanding of the relapse process.

Contrary to the common understanding, relapse is not just a brief and isolated occurrence. Instead, there are three stages of addiction relapse:

  1. Emotional
  2. Mental
  3. Physical

Just like addiction recovery is a lifelong process – and not always a linear process – so relapse is more than a single event. Determining how to avoid a relapse is streamlined if you keep this in mind.

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain condition with anywhere from 40% to 60% of those in recovery relapsing at least once. As such, the relapse rate for addiction mirrors that of other chronic diseases. How you negotiate any roadblocks on your recovery journey could be the difference between ongoing sober living and repeated relapse.

If you want to work out how to avoid relapse, it pays to fully understand what relapse means in the context of addiction recovery.

What Does it Mean to Relapse in Recovery?

To understand the nature of relapse, it’s essential to define relapse.

According to NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) a relapse expresses someone returning to substance use after a period of abstinence.

Relapse typically occurs gradually over three stages as follows:

1) Emotional relapse

You might not be actively thinking about using addictive substances during the first stage of relapse, emotional relapse.

Even if thoughts of returning to alcoholor drugs are not dominant, you may still find your emotions and your behaviors are pushing you to a position where relapse starts becoming a possibility.

All of these red flags indicate emotional relapse:

  • Denial.
  • Bottling up emotions.
  • Not enjoying sober living.
  • Withdrawing socially.
  • Mood swings.
  • Intolerance.
  • Failure to attend peer-support meetings.

If all of these stressors continue simmering, you could easily find yourself moving into mental relapse, the second stage of addiction relapse.

2) Mental relapse

Refusing to acknowledge the above markers for emotional relapse can easily lead to mental relapse occurring. This phase of relapse sees you engaged with a fierce inner battle. You may find that you want to stick to your recovery plan and stay sober, while at the same time you begin entertaining the idea of substance use.

If you notice you are fantasizing about using drugs or alcohol, glorifying substance use rather than focusing on the negative outcomes, you could find yourself deeper into the mental relapse phase. As this phase progresses, your resistance is likely to weaken.

These are the most common signs and symptoms of mental relapse:

  • Fantasizing about using alcohol or drugs.
  • Powerful cravings.
  • Downplaying past negative outcomes associated with substance abuse.
  • Thinking more about substance use.
  • Imagining a return to controlled substance use.
  • Spending more time with people who use substances.
  • Planning your relapse.

If you find yourself barraged by intense cravings for substances during the early phase of recovery, relaxation techniques like mindfulness and meditation can help you to overcome these cravings.

If you feel determined to use substances, try one last trick to help you avoid relapse: wait for thirty minutes before acting. Using this brief window of time to double down on your recovery goals with renewed vigor can help prevent mental relapse becoming physical relapse.

3) Physical relapse

If you encounter the above symptoms of the early phases of relapse and you do not take preventive action, it is almost inevitable you will physically relapse.

Now if you’re thinking “I relapsed, now what?” or are curious about the dangers, let’s take a closer look.

The reduced tolerance you have for drugs or alcohol after detoxing means you could get more intoxicated more rapidly.

Beyond this, the only remaining question is whether you can stop and reverse this slip-up, or whether you will tailspin into a full-bore relapse.

What Does Relapse Feel Like?

The most effective way to get back on track after relapsing is to accept that this is a routine setback on your journey, a journey which never promised to unfold in a set manner.

Dismiss any thoughts that relapse means failure. You may feel you have let yourself and your loved ones down, but you can fix that by segueing right back into recovery.

Keep this uppermost in mind – relapse is a normal part of recovery, affecting at least half of those engaging with treatment. Long-term sobriety is not an end goal, but rather a process. You can expect setbacks in any long-term process, but what counts is how you tackle those setbacks.

So, go easy on yourself even if you are feeling hopeless or helpless. Reach out to your treatment team and support network and implement your relapse management plan.

How to Avoid Relapse in Recovery

Learning how to avoid relapse in recovery hinges on managing your personal triggers for substance use and formulating coping mechanisms to use instead of addictive substances. You will identify what triggers you to use substances at rehab, and you will also develop superior coping skills.

Here are five simple tips for avoiding relapse as you begin your lifelong recovery journey:

1. Draw up an emergency contact list

2. Avoiding any potentially triggering situations

3. Focus on self-care

4. Use deep breathing techniques

5. Practice grounding techniques

1) Draw up an emergency contact list

Sometimes, cravings for substances during recovery can be intense and very challenging to resist, particularly during the early phase of recovery.

Make sure you have a contact list of healthy loved ones or friends and family in recovery you can call if confronted by seemingly unmanageable cravings.

Keep the list of contact details with you at all times so you always have help on hand.

2) Avoiding any potentially triggering situations

Avoiding the people, places, or things responsible for triggering cravings is sometimes the best strategy.

Avoidance might not always be possible, and it may not always be necessary or the best option. If the same triggers keep tripping you up, though, stay away.

3) Focus on self-care

Eating a balanced diet with plenty of whole, fresh foods rich in protein and complex carbs can strengthen your body and leave you better prepared to manage cravings.

Aim for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity each day. This will give you a natural boost as your body releases endorphins and dopamine.

Rest well and try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night. This may be tough in the early stages of recovery but rest as much as you can.

4) Use deep breathing techniques

Breathing is central to your life and by changing breathing patterns, you can exert more control over your life.

Breathing governs several core functions throughout the body. Additionally, breathing has a significant impact on brain chemistry. As such, the way in which you breathe can affect your emotions and mood.

Deep breathing triggers the release of chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in the brain. Many of these neurotransmitters cause the release of feel-good chemicals, leading to increased happiness and relaxation, and reduced pain.

When you breathe deeply, this improves oxygen flow and promotes the expulsion of toxins.

The 4 x 4 breathing technique involves taking 4 deep breaths through the nose, holding, and then releasing for 4 seconds. This technique allows you to feel the movement in your diaphragm as you breathe.

Not only is deep breathing a highly effective relapse prevention technique, but it can also be used just about anywhere without anyone being aware of what you are doing.

5) Practice grounding techniques

Stress and anxiety can be significant barriers to recovery.

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a coping technique that helps you to focus on all five senses in turn rather than allowing thoughts of substance use to consume you. This grounding technique will also help you to keep anxiety and unhealthy self-talk at bay.

After taking a series of deep breaths, you perform the following actions:

  1. Acknowledge 5 things you can see
  2. Acknowledge 4 things you can touch
  3. Acknowledge 3 things you can hear
  4. Acknowledge 2 things you can smell
  5. Acknowledge 1 thing you can taste

Complete the exercise by taking a long breath.

Using this technique will help you to become more self-aware and more in control when overwhelmed by thoughts that could easily lead to relapse.

Remember, however strong and unmanageable it might feel at the time, all cravings end.

To make things easier as you move forward, journal all your triggers and cravings so you can build a full arsenal of coping strategies to suit.

Discover How to Avoid Relapse at Ohio Recovery Centers

You can build a firm foundation for preventing relapse by engaging with evidence-based addiction treatment at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers.

We specialize in the outpatient treatment of the following:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Substance use disorder (prescription medications and illicit narcotics)
  • Mental health disorders
  • Co-occurring disorders (dual diagnosis)

Whether you require the flexibility of an IOP (intensive outpatient program) or the support and structure of a PHP (partial hospitalization program), you can access the following interventions at Ohio Recovery Centers:

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Psychotherapy (talk therapy like CBT or DBT)
  • Counseling (individual and group)
  • family therapy
  • Holistic therapies

Psychotherapy is a core component of all addiction treatment programs here at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. You’ll work closely with a qualified therapist, exploring your personal addiction triggers and developing healthy coping mechanisms to draw upon when confronted by stressors in your recovery.

Once you complete your outpatient treatment program, you will be equipped with an appropriate level of aftercare, and robust relapse prevention and management strategies. Reach out to the friendly team for more information right here or call (877) 679-2132.

Table of Contents

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn